Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Affordable Trees

I miss Ypsilanti, MI for many reasons, but especially now that we're looking for a new apartment in Chattanooga. Ypsi is this wonderful, underrated little secret of a town. Much of it is fairly ghetto - no matter where you live, you're probably within walking distance of a crackhouse - but I love its sleepy shopping districts, historic homes and expansive parks along the Huron River. My old Ypsi neighborhood is very pretty and a pretty hip destination for poor artist types and young families, which is to say that the living is rather cheap.

Like Ypsi, Chattanooga is a dilapidated blue collar town experiencing a rebirth, but unlike Ypsi all the hip, pretty parts of town are really, really expensive. That's just the way it is. If you want to live near downtown (which we do) and safety is a concern (more so since we're having a baby) there are three "cool" areas to consider ~

The North Shore The first bastion of Chattanooga's great gentrification. Covering several lush, hilly square miles, this is where you find the fancy pants school district and a riverside row of chic retail businesses and overpriced restaurants. Frankly, I'm not impressed. It's so much like Ypsi's upscale city next door, Ann Arbor - the neighborhoods are undeniably gorgeous (and home to the most expensive real estate and rentals in town) but the business district is little more than a shiny money trap. There isn't much to do there except blow your cash on a bunch of stuff you don't need, like designer dog biscuits and boutique clothing. Oh, and the people. On Sunday we dined at Taco Mamacita, a truly good purveyor of gourmet, completely unauthentic $3.50 tacos. Our meal was wonderful, but the atmosphere felt all wrong. As I glanced around the room, I said to Dan, "This crowd reminds me of D.C. Everyone is white in the worst way." Specifically, it felt like everyone in that restaurant had once belonged to a frat or sorority. Now that isn't necessarily a bad thing in itself. It's the homogeneity that frightens me. I'm an outsider and I have no desire to be "in". That's my general impression of the North Shore's business center. And other than the superior school district, which won't be relevant to us for several more years, this seems to be the neighborhood's most touted feature. I don't get it.

The Southside Our current locale and the next big phase in Chatty gentrification, this neighborhood is genuinely cool. We have a few art galleries and a sizable collection of excellent artisan foodie establishments - Niedlov's for bread and pastries, Link 41 for sausage, Velo for coffee, The Terminal for beer (though their burgers and entrees are way better than their brews). Our people are a mix of families, yuppies, older folks and hipsters. It's racially diverse for now and I hope that lasts but I'm not sure it will. The change from low income neighborhood to up-and-coming artists' hub has happened so fast. All of those businesses have come to the Southside in just the past few years. I'm wondering how long it will be before we can't afford the rent here. As it is, the only available spaces are way bigger and pricier than what we want. And the fact remains that for all its cool exposed brick interiors, this former manufacturing center is dotted with large, treeless lots and often reeks of the chicken rendering plant down the road. The Southside was just right for our childless selves, but the prospect of a much tighter budget means that proximity to galleries, artisan foods and brewpubs just isn't that big a draw anymore. I'll take clean, fresh air instead.

St. Elmo I hope we end up living here. Situated at the foot of Lookout Mountain and just above the Georgia state line, St. Elmo used to be its own little town before it became part of Chattanooga in 1929. They have their own downtown with a cafe, a few restaurants, a couple grocery stores and a public library branch. And it's just lovely, with it's craftsman style houses, thick, old trees and mountain view. With an infant on the way, I want a solid home with a big, shady porch, 'cause I don't plan on going out often. And that's good, because there isn't much happening in St. Elmo and it's a haul to downtown Chattanooga. The bummer part of the deal is that we still need to go to work, and getting in and out of this hillside burg can be a real pain in the ass. But when all pluses and minuses are told, I think that one sacrifice is worth making.

So I guess what I'm trying to say is that I find myself wanting to live in the 'burbs* and that feels pretty weird to me. Having a kid forces a complete reevaluation of what you want in a living situation. We still have our weirdo ways - choosing to rent instead of buying, wanting to live within a ten minute drive of cool businesses and happenings, valuing diversity at least as much as we value a good school district (and who knows how that will change when our kid is actually school-aged). But the fact that I'm desperately hoping we score a certain St. Elmo rental that will require lots of driving to and fro is strange, considering that walkability used to be my number one renter's concern. And this place ain't cheap, either. It's a fairly big two bedroom, which means big utility expenses. Still, I prefer this expensive choice to the more convenient but less-bang-for-your-buck North Shore, or even our current neighborhood. As I find myself settling into a lengthy nesting stage, affordable trees have gained greater priority.

*Again, St. Elmo is technically in the city of Chattanooga. But for it's sheer distance from the city center, it may as well be the suburb it was before it was annexed.

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